Monday, 30 October 2017

1,060 MANCHESTER ORCHESTRA, Bristol SWX, Saturday 28th October 2017

Rachel and I, happily, have many bands where our tastes overlap, and about whom we’re equally keen to catch “live” whenever possible (Nada Surf, The Sheila Divine and The New Pornographers leap to mind here). Similarly, there are also “David bands” and “Rachel bands”, where we acknowledge one of us is just that bit more keen than the other. Noted “Rachel bands” include the likes of Idlewild, Biffy Clyro, James, Ash… and, oddly, this lot, Manchester Orchestra, Alabama’s finest purveyors of riff-overloaded, alt-Americana tinged anthems for hairy chainsaw-wielding Appalachian backwoodsmen. I get why I like them, less sure about why my dear lady wife is such an avid fan. But hey, if it means that when they announce a new tour cycle promoting a new album (as they did earlier this year, including a Bristol date on their tour cycle in support of new album “A Black Mile To The Surface”), Rach is all over it like a rash, booking tix for us on the pre-sale, then hey, I’m game! It didn’t hurt either, that said new album (widely lauded as their finest yet) is an eminently listenable affair, a juxtaposition of the bleak and anthemic elements of their work, often recalling equally hairy Scottish mob Frightened Rabbit in the process. A bit weird about most tracks being titled “The [something or other]”, but there you go…

After making robust plans for our departure, we found out at the last-minute that this was an early one. However parental responsibility trumped rock’n’roll tonight, so we left directly after watching Logan’s final race in his swim club championships! Still, we parked up in the Rupert Street car park for 7.30, too late to catch the curiously named support Slothrust, but in ample time to brave the crowded bar for Rach’s vino collapso, and find a splendid viewing spot near the front, on the (slightly) raised walkway stage right. Sure enough, the lights dimmed and bearded behemoth vocalist Andy Hull led Manchester Orchestra on prompt at 8, his unorthodox high choirboy/ operatic lilt embellishing the elegiac opening to “The Maze”, before the song layered and built to a thudding, ball-crushing denouement under an avalanche of riffery. “The Gold”, next up, was a sinister lupine howl of a song with a pounding backbeat, and “The Moth” was all juddering heavy riffery again, the aural equivalent to being pulverised to a fine powder. Cripes!

Then, oldie “Shake It Out” actually brought some tuneage amidst all the sonic assault, and suddenly the scales fell from my eyes and I realised why Rach likes this lot so much – “Shake It Out”, all seething power, screaming hookline and undulating, tempo changing structure, could easily have walked off Biffy Clyro’s “Puzzle” album. Colour me stupid, but hey, got it now! Similar oldie “I’ve Got Friends” provided a respite from the sonic attack, almost pretty in comparison, with a deft keyboard hook accompaniment, and “The Alien”, one of 3 mid-set numbers which segued into each other (the 70’s soft rock feel of “The Sunshine” and the predictably heavier “The Grocery” being the other 2) was underpinned by a creepy bassline.

“Simple Math” thereafter returned to the usual Manchester Orchestra modus operandi – slow, eerie intro into mid-paced number, big ball-crushing crescendo – and I confess that by set closer “The River”, which felt like an ordeal in pounding repetitive noise, I would have liked a lot more light and shade respite during the set. I know that’s not normally like me to complain about the noise, but it all seemed a little… incoherent at times, just pounding riff after pounding riff for the sake of it. However, “Shake It Out” notwithstanding, the 2 encores were probably my favourite numbers of the night; “I Can Feel A Hot One” retaining its’ touching, tender mood throughout, and closer “The Silence” (ironically named, given the set thus far!) was also slow, quiet and almost 60’s film score-esque, at which point the taciturn Hull (not a word to the audience throughout!) gave a wave and led the troops offstage.

A remarkably easy list later, we were then stuck in an utterly stupid semi-crush to get out, as the crowd funnelled out to the single staircase exit at the back, then onto the street – where the pre-gig barriers were still up, cutting egress down to single file. Utterly stupid, and dangerously thoughtless, particularly for such a new venue. Note to self – don’t be in a rush to leave next time! So overall, a variable performance by Manchester Orchestra for me – splendid at times, hard work at others. They’re a “Rachel band”, though, and she loved it, so there!

Friday, 27 October 2017

1,059 HAIL, Fassine, Luke DeSciscio, Swindon Level 3, Thursday 26th October 2017

An utterly fascinating evening of challenging music and entertaining rock discourse with talented folk began with a very late call. Unsure about my ability to stay awake late after The Horrors gig last night, I nonetheless went for it, lured by the prospect of an eclectic 3-act bill at my old “spiritual home”, Swindon’s very own Level 3, topped by Hail, the remaining pairing of Liam and Sophie from the very promising Polar Front, who impressed up the Vic last September (gig 1,003) with a genre-straddling indie/pop collision of a set. Early days for the new line-up, sure, but worth checking out anyway...

Parked round the corner just after 8 only to find the venue shut, with door due at 8.15! Popped into the neighbouring Rolleston instead,  to find tonight’s promoter Dave Franklin engaged in earnest discussion with my recent Facebook friend Geoffrey Head! One of only 2 gents whom I'd happily defer to as having a greater passion and appetite for "live" music than my own (the other,  ironically, also being called Jeff!), it was great to finally meet "The Head Of Music " in person, and we compared notes and gig experiences over Grolsch and Lemon & Lime in both the Rolly and Lev, once it opened.

Quickly, the time ticked to 9 pm,  and Luke DeSciscio plugged in onstage and prepared to play to a sadly sparse but knowledgeable audience.  Once again conjuring a hushed and intricately melodic atmosphere from the outset, his dexterous acoustic guitar work formed a base for his impressive, octave-straddling voice to swoop and soar.  "I'm still getting used to playing sober," he remarked, and another feature of this set was how thoughtfully and cerebrally he approached his performance throughout, as if considering how to meet his own standards. The pastoral and baroque atmospherics again recalled 60’s icons Love, but the voice, quavery and chillingly beautiful, was Buckley-esque in its emotive range (yup, I know "Buckley-esque" is a bit of a cliche phrase, but hey, if you hear clip clops down the street, you think "horse", not "zebra", right?). I loved the lyric, "I'm getting a tattoo to forget you" in the stark, bare "Patterns Of Revolution"; his refusal to play the between-song banter game  ("don't expect any communication from me while I tune"... nice one!); and final number "Jessica", the conversational lyricism depicting a breakup in brutal, mundane detail. I’m becoming more of a fan of this talented young man each time I see him!

Had a, "holy shit!" moment at the bar afterwards, as former XTC guitarist Dave Gregory was in attendance! Mr. Franklin kindly introduced us and we briefly chatted XTC and Boston rock, before London band Fassine eased into their set. The reason for Mr. Gregory's attendance tonight (Fassine having featured on the recent excellent Sky Arts documentary "This Is Pop"), advance reports had led me to expect an eerie, ethereal 4AD trip-hop groove soundscape from Fassine. None of that, though, as the 5-piece, led by the strikingly attractive brunette Sarah Palmer, initially recalled the moody, loose-limbed melancholy of latter-day Madder Rose, thereafter weaving a more complex musical pattern of dark, dramatic late night torch music and keyboard crescendos (once the mix allowed for it), overlaid by Sarah's soulful and, at times, almost operatic vocals. No obvious comparisons here (I noticed bits of the classy indie heartbreak of The Heart Throbs, and the layered, textural approach of Grizzly Bear, but really, I'm reaching here...), just a fine, accomplished band displaying those old-fashioned virtues of splendid musicianship and intelligently crafted songs. Plenty to say too, the gregarious Sarah remarking, "we wanted to see the White Horse and the Ken White murals, but went to a Weatherspoons instead!", then waxing eloquently about XTC prior to their splendidly observed cover of "Nonsuch"'s "That Wave". The subsequent "Sunshine" was my favourite, an eerie keyboard refrain underpinning a building groove which soared to a crescendo. Ultimately, of Fassine, I can simply say, This Was Pop! Classy and clever, but pop all the same. Nice one! 

A couple of engrossing chats with Luke DeSciscio and, outside, Fassine, saw me miss both Dave Gregory and Geoffrey's departures, and the first couple of numbers of Hail's set. Yipe! Wandered back in to find the duo already kicking up a storm, with Sophie's rousing, strident tones and impressive vocal range and Liam's hard-hitting drum style being augmented by some looped electronica colour wash (normally my bugbear, but hey, I can forgive them!). Sometimes a little too hard-hitting from Liam - as if attempting to compensate for the reduced numerical line-up by bashing the shit out of his drums, and occasionally suffering from "bass drum wander" as a consequence! - they were nonetheless determined that their melting pot of rock dynamics, ethereal textures and modern-day pop/ dance sensibilities be delivered stridently and powerfully. "Criminal" was my set highlight, a tumbling drum pattern underpinning a stripped verse which built to a more layered strident chorus, and the subsequent "Nothing" featured a looped grime rap, the result of a collaboration with a local grime artist. Overall a fine if embryonic set - clearly a work-in-progress, the key building blocks of talent and application are there for Hail, so their journey to the finished product should be fairly swift! 

More rock chat with Liam and Fassine afterwards, before I cried, "enough!" and headed wearily home. Glad I made it to this one, though; all Hail to a Fassine-ating evening!

1,058 THE HORRORS, Baba Naga, Bristol Bierkeller, Wednesday 25th October 2017

Once again I find myself in a seemingly familiar position with The Horrors; looking for validation in their “live” performance after a new album of their dark, post-punk meets (increasingly) libidinous Krautrock synthpop dance (this time in their appropriately named 5th album “V”) which whilst listenable, offered no great departure or development from its’ predecessor. Could The Horrors have found their groove, only to be in danger of it turning into a rut? An announcement of a gig at the Bierkeller, a smaller venue to their last Bristol jaunt (October 2014, gig 927 on the “Luminous” tour) added to my slight concern, but hey, I booked a ticket anyway as they'd been good value “live” before - well, apart from the Munsters-lite goth black balloon phase of their infancy, anyway!

A fairly easy drive down the M4 saw me parking up in the Rupert Street car park around the corner from the venue and getting in after a short wait at 8. Back to the elegantly run-down Bierkeller, scene of so many drunken rock’n’roll nights for me in the 80’s! I took a pew towards the back, but was tempted down the front to check out openers, Baba Naga, on at 8.15. They kicked in with an opener which was all Eastern style psych-guitar licks, reminiscent of the intro of The Doors' classic “The End”. However as soon as the thudding, ham-fisted drums hit, it degenerated into tuneless, lumpen pseudo blues/ psych sludge and     overwhelming wah-wah riffery, with vocals buried so deep they'd probably need to be drilled for. One  number indistinguishable from the next, they recalled that horrible lot Endless Boogie, or the worst excesses of Secret Machines. After an interminable 25 minutes, I wasn't even sure of how many numbers they played - pick a number between 2 and 5! - but I knew that they were all shit!

Joined the Horrors broad church (mixtures of goth punk types, students and old rock lags - I was by no means the oldest here!) down the front, stage left, head in the monitors but on a flat piece of floor so as to not risk damaging my knee, aggravated by a trip on holiday (!), as swathes of dry ice enveloped the floor (does anything else come in swathes, I wonder?). The Horrors themselves finally emerged onto a red backlit and strobe-splattered stage, easing into the loose-limbed Tubeway Army-like sheet synth of new CD opener “Hologram”, monochrome-clad and angular Goblin King vocalist Faris Badwan emerging last, then flailing around as if exhorting this relatively slow number to speed up a bit! Luckily, the more aggressive, darker “Machine” was next up, “V”’s best track given even more seething power “live”, and by the soaring JAMC-like oldie “Who Can Say”, Faris’ suitably dispassionate vocal a feature, The Horrors were in full flight.

Merely pretty darn good on CD, The Horrors are outstanding “live”, truly coming alive onstage, the songs given added power and potency and utterly making sense. And Faris is a consummate frontman; a stretched Marc Almond, climbing on the monitors to accentuate his already-impressive height, kinetic, all action and angles, teasing and tempting, he was a riveting visual presence throughout. “Mirror Image” was tough and lean, underpinned with a staccato keyboard pattern and droney guitar riffery, and Faris acknowledged the enthusiastic response with, “this feels like a home town show - thank you very much!” before the pulsating Stereolab-esque Krautrock metronomics of “Sea Within A Sea”, another looped keyboard riff powering this number to a growling, dissonant climax.

More compliments from The Goblin King for, “being a fantastic crowd,” before the elegiac opening to “Weighed Down” morphed into a heavily gloomy, slow-burn snarl. And whilst the latter stages of the set drifted lazily past in a whirling marshmallow haze, the penultimate “Endless Blue” snapped into ferocious life for its’ eventual denouement, and set closer “Still Life” was a suitably widescreen way to end a startlingly good set as it started; in washes of Doors-like keys and Tubeway Army/ Kraftwerk robotic synth. The libidinous groove of “Ghost” and the very 80’s (as in, Soft Cell/ Depeche Mode 80’s) “Something To Remember Me By” closed out a superb performance. A brief word and set-list signature from bassist Joshua Hayward (who enjoyed my “stretched Marc Almond” comment on Faris!) before I hit the road afterwards, suitably validated. While they keep delivering performances of this quality, you can bet I’ll keep coming back for more Horrors!

Friday, 13 October 2017

1,057 INHEAVEN, Bloxx, King Nun, Bristol Fleece, Wednesday 11th October 2017

My second trip to the suddenly impossible-to-get-to Bristol Fleece in 5 days sees me following up on the progress of a promising band I’d checked out at my old Level 3 stamping grounds, barely 3½ months ago (gig 1,043 if you’re counting). Inheaven, who’d shimmered, swooped, shoegazed and swaggered into the forefront of my new band radar for 2017 as a result of that, their Glasto warm-up and partial homecoming gig (bassist Chloe being from the ‘don and, indeed, a former Level 3 acolyte, albeit some years after my halcyon period!), had since dropped their eponymous debut album which, happily, delivered fully on all the promise displayed at that gig. Their colourful potpourri of post-punk/ shoegaze/ garage rock in full force, “Inheaven” is full of totally banging tuneage, with not a single duff track on show, and is currently squabbling with Desperate Journalist for my Album Of The Year. Taking in one of their Autumn tour dates was a must, then, and I snapped myself up a ticket, for a solo midweek jaunt down the M4.

A delayed and sodden drive, then a confusing diversion as I eschewed my former route into town in favour of Temple Gate, saw me parking just around the corner and hitting a surprisingly dead Fleece for 8. As quiet as I’d seen it since that fabled El Nino gig some years back (gig 403; I think about 11 people were at that one…!); indeed, there were tables out around the pillars towards the back too! The vocalist of openers King Nun remarked that this was the first time they’d played a seated venue (!), but that was pretty much the last we actually heard from him, as his vocals were so submerged in their mix, underneath the squally, strident guitar riffery and hard-hitting drums, as to be somewhat superfluous. Their second number sounded like a jetplane landing (an actual one, not the band!) and although the set was enthusiastically delivered and deviated later into slower and more melodic territory, it was short on memorable hooks.

Bloxx, next up, had a terrible name but much stronger material, in a languid, slacker rock/ 90’s US college pop vein; as if Juliana Hatfield were fronting Matt Dillon’s band Citizen Dick from the movie “Singles”, perhaps… their sleepy nonchalance however took a turn for the better at the end of their set, with their final 3 numbers “Sea Blue”, “You” and “Your Boyfriend” being groovier and much more upbeat, recalling the likes of Yuck or Pity Sex. A definite work-in-progess (as were the openers), but some decent promise here.

The place was still only about ¼ full – Bristol, wake up! The paucity of the turnout didn’t seem to bother Inheaven, however; on at 9.30 and lining up behind their usual rose-bedecked mic stands, they were once again “on it” from the outset with a burst of light, colour and the strident chorus and militaristic drumbeats of opener “Bitter Town”. Next up, “Stupid Things”, a beautifully observed Jesus And Mary Chain pastiche on record, became a seething, coruscating wall of sound “live”, and by the swaggering, singalong strut of “Baby’s Alright”, it was clear that even in these short months, this band had come on in leaps and bounds “live”, with more confidence, cohesion and audience interaction. They knew it too, with knowing glances and satisfied smirks illustrating the fact they were totally nailing this “live” performance malarkey now.

The thrilling Krautrock metronome glam sleaze of “Vultures” saw some male/ female call and response vocals between Chloe (who wore a huge “fantasy band camp” grin throughout, clearly loving it up there) and main vocalist, the swarthily handsome and more earnest James Taylor, Chloe’s quickfire rapped verse recalling Curve’s Toni Halliday. “World On Fire” featured some vicious riffery, before we were back to the JAMC/ Pixies-ish wall of noise for a superb “All There Is” A later “Treats” saw a hectic moshpit break out to its’ almost American Hi-Fi-like chorus, and whilst “Wasted My Life” seemed a little ragged as the set rushed headlong to its conclusion, “Regeneration” closed it out splendidly with an epic swish and swagger.

Excellent stuff from a band quickly fulfilling on their potential and promise. Caught my breath, then chatted to a fellow music blogger (hey Ryan!), before grabbing merch and a chat and pix with the band, including fellow Swindonian Chloe who remembered me from Lev. Nice! A band clearly in a hurry, here’s hoping they don’t compromise their excellent sound for a quicker ascent to the bigger venues that doubtless await them. There’s more to come from Inheaven, a potentially great band for years to come!

Sunday, 8 October 2017

1,056 THE ICICLE WORKS, Bristol Fleece, Friday 6th October 2017

A particularly fraught day left me in serious need of the healing salve a great gig can provide, and for that, I turned tonight to The Icicle Works, another 80’s post-punk “rockist” band and Scouse contemporaries of the likes of The Bunnymen, whom, similar to The Chameleons earlier this year, I’d overlooked back in the day but had recently revisited following my redundancy last year. Truth to tell, I wasn’t actually completely oblivious of this lot back then; I thoroughly enjoyed a smattering of their singles, particularly the racily melodic and hook-laden opening double singles salvo of “Birds Fly” and “Love Is A Wonderful Colour”, and the hard rocking, later “Understanding Jane”, and briefly owned 3 separate copies of their first album… only to take them all back as my stylus jumped in the same place! Their dramatic Mersey widescreen sweep and pseudo-proggy psych-pop therefore remained on the periphery of my musical vision until last year, when I bought and enjoyed their 5 CD box set, then quickly booked tix for what promised to be a “deep dive” into their back catalogue, with vocalist, mainstay and (similar to the Chameleons again!) sole original member Ian McNabb threatening a 2 ½ hour retrospective set of band and solo material!

This also promised to be an early start at 7.40, which proved problematic when, earlier in the day, my 10 year old son was admitted to hospital and diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes… hence the fraught-ness! A few quick family rearrangements allowed me to attend this gig, albeit leaving slightly later than planned, picking up the Big Man and hammering down the M4, then getting stuck around the centre of Bristol before parking up at 10 to 8. We therefore hit the venue just as The Icicle Works were starting their 3rd number, a startlingly tough-sounding “Evangeline”, the soaring chorus being filled in by the knowledgeable audience. We hung back and spotted Matt in the doorway; he’d gone to The Thekla instead! A sinewy, sweeping and equally singalong “Seven Horses” was next up, with McNabb already the focal point, a gregarious and entertaining frontman constantly interacting with the crowd both between and mid-song. “Rock and roll made me a lot of things, but one of them ain’t funny!” he, somewhat inaccurately, quipped early doors…

The first set consisted primarily of vintage Icicle Works material, interspersed with the engaging McNabb’s deadpan comments; a soulful, Motown-lite “Blind” was preceded by a well-observed “Whispering” Bob Harris impression, and an acerbic, sprawling and hauntingly discordant “Up Here In The North Of England” was introduced with the pointed barb of, “I wrote this in the 80’s about an oppressive Tory Government – not much has changed…”. The sweepingly widescreen, Wild Swans-esque “Who Do You Want For Your Love” received the pithy introduction of, “another of our songs that got to No. 53!”, whilst a touchingly melodic, 60’s-tinged “Starry Blue Eyed Wonder” became a hushed singalong. “The Cauldron Of Love” closed out set one, McNabb leading his charges off at 9, “to go and take some ibuprofen – we’re all getting old!”

Chatted with Matt and Rich in the intermission, and unloaded about my day to a couple of sets of sympathetic ears, before McNabb returned to the stage 15 minutes later for set two with the comment of, “nice to see so many ladies here – it’s normally swinging dicks all the way to the back [at our gigs]!” Set two delved into McNabb’s post-IW solo material, drawing from an extensive (and unfamiliar to these ears) back catalogue. “Fire Inside My Soul” recalled the anthemic heroics of Springsteen’s “Dancing In The Dark”, and “What She Did To My Mind” was a rootsier, Neil Young-esque riff-heavy workout. In fact most of the second set felt more trad, almost heartland rock, well constructed and melodic with fine, reverential organ playing underpinning the sound, but I have to confess it drifted pleasantly but unobtrusively along for me, and I felt I was counting down to a return to the Icicle Works material at the end of the set.

We finally got what we wanted, though; McNabb offered thanks to the crowd for coming along and supporting “live” music, gave a shout-out for Tom Petty (lost to us at 66, earlier this week), then the intricate guitar intro to classic “Hollow Horse”, the choral hook again sung back by the audience, closed out the second set at 10.15. A lengthy encore of “Clarabella” preceded a lovely, slowed-up “Love Is A Wonderful Colour” before the band took a bow at 10.30 and left the stage again, then…

That was that! To our great consternation, potential highlights “Birds Fly” and “Understanding Jane” were both cut from the encore! We caught up with Ian McNabb at the merch stand for pix and set-list signings (I grabbed the list for set 2 only), and he explained that they were necessarily sacrificed due to the venue curfew. Bugger! Overall therefore, a great, tough sounding first set, a fine but patchy second set capped by a couple of great numbers, but we left discussing what was omitted. Hopefully a condensed Icicle Works singles-centric set at November’s forthcoming “Shiine On” Festival will prove that less is more, and might just be a potential festival highlight. We’ll see, but nevertheless, The Icicle Works and Ian McNabb still brightened up my fraught day!